THB #308: Sundance & Rape
This piece is kind of a sidebar to my normal Sundance coverage. It isn’t about what’s great or not, or what is selling.
I saw Victim/Suspect today and I don’t think the film is the best piece of documentary filmmaking I have seen. But, it is one of the most important films at Sundance this year.
For me, the film takes me back to two former Sundance films that didn’t get the attention they deserved, then or now.
In 2001, a movie called Raw Deal: A Question of Consent premiered at Sundance and became an on-site drama before it even screened, as the rapey boys of the Florida State frat that was involved in the events of the doc threatened all kinds of lawsuits. Only 7 reviews are left on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was bought by Artisan Films for what I believe was then a record price… and promptly disappeared. They would not distribute it. Various stories about why circulated. One was that the music in the handicam footage that made up much of the movie could not be cleared at a price that allowed distribution. The other big one was that the film’s accused rapist was threatening to sue and that he scared Artisan off distribution, even though they had paid millions for those rights.
I showed the film at the Miami International Film Festival in February 2002, selling out 4 shows (did a 5th for free at FIU)… we could have sold out more. Every screening brought a different reaction and a different slice of Miami’s thinkers. Even the head of the frat involved, who is in the film, indulging, came to see it, with a date, and threatened our still cameraperson, shouting, “If you take my picture, I am going to shove that camera up your ass.” Nice guy.
The movie, made by the now-very-successful Rakontur Films team of Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, was made up primarily of footage that was acquired under Florida’s Sunshine Laws showing a part of the evening a stripper spent in a Florida State frat house. She came out of in the morning saying she was raped.
At first, the police believed her. But then they got hold of one of the two tapes frat members had shot - which had sex acts on it, but not a rape - and decided she was false reporting. They then arrested her for false reporting, which made her name fair game and copies of the tape - including her and frat boys, naked and engaged in various sex acts - available from the state for a small fee. As it turned out there was a second tape that was a lot more damning… but the die has been cast and she was forever cast by the state as the victimizer… until this film, which added context. Part of the context was this asshole frat leader who talked about the accuser like she was, literally, an animal… less than an animal.
You could see this woman being stalked by the man who she would testify eventually managed to pry her legs apart and rape her.
For me, this was a movie that found the closest thing to the line of in sexual assault as you could witness. It is a very painful film to watch. She is a stripper. She was inebriated… which is why she was there at the frat alone, too drunk/stoned to drive home. She had worked as a prostitute before this event. And, in the footage, you can see her perform various sex acts in the frat room where most of the evening took place. But all the while, you can also see her actively avoiding oral or vaginal penetration… for hour upon hour.
No one has had the courage to stream the film as part of a subscription. It was on Vimeo for rent for a while - though not now - even though fair use rules have changed dramatically in these last 20 years (thanks, Kartemquin!)
Leap forward to 2015 at Sundance. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering deliver The Hunting Ground, a doc on the rape on college campuses. The film is controversial from the start because of the Rolling Stone story in November 2014 about an alleged rape at the University of Virginia which turned out to be falsely reported. The Duke lacrosse team case had also brought more suspicion about rape accusations.
At the center of The Hunting Ground was a woman who accused Florida State’s superstar college quarterback, Jameis Winston, of rape at a bar. The film meticulously laid out how the university and local police buried the case. Winston went on to be a first round draft pick in the NFL and to suffer no consequences, in college or the pros. The New York Times did a story on all of this in April 2014.
The victim was not the first woman on campus to raise questions about Winston’s sexual aggression. And a failure to investigate and to cover-up does not assure that Mr. Winston committed a rape. But it does speak clearly to the lengths to which people will go to not take or demand responsibility for sexual assault in this country. I choose to believe the accuser and do to this day.
The Hunting Ground was released by Radius-TWC and then on CNN, so it was seen. It didn’t have the extreme footage that Raw Deal had… and it was made by a well-known documentarian with powerful supporters.
But it had no impact on Jameis Winston’s public image or career.
And now, in 2023, Victim/Suspect lands at Sundance. The film is much more specific about its focus. It is about police using interrogation techniques meant for criminals they feel are lying to them to get rape accusers to retract their accusations. And in a horrifying number of cases, to then charge the likely-victim that they talked out of an accusation with false accusing, putting them in serious legal jeopardy.
It really is enough to make you physically sick.
I don’t have an anti-police attitude. But this is one of those things where you can see how it has become habit… habit that coincides with a particularly male denial of sexual assault which continues to scare women into not reporting assault at all.
The oft-used stat that 1-in-3 women will be sexually assaulted - not necessarily to the level of rape - in their lifetime comes up. I think that stat is way too low. I know almost no women who are close enough to ask about this intimate subject who have never been sexually assaulted on some real level by men. I don’t mean aggressive flirting. I mean, hands on, over the line stuff with an unwilling person.
Overly aggressive men - particularly drunk ones - don’t all qualify as rapists. So guys, don’t be so quick to let yourselves completely off the hook because you aren’t a rapist. It’s more like being racially insensitive vs being a full-on racist. You can go undetected and look yourself in the mirror with a little rationalization if you are the former. But I think too many of us still use the fact that we know - as much as we can self-reflect - that we are not racist to allow ourselves the indulgence of racial insensitivity. Same with sexual assault at the less assaultive levels.
And yes, people can go overboard. People can over-accuse. People can play the victim to the degree that it mischaracterizes a given situation. Things are overly heated in 2023.
But when you put your hands on a woman who doesn’t want your hands on her, if you are paying any attention at all, you probably know, somewhere in your mind. When you ogle a woman you don’t know so she can see you doing it, you know what you are doing and the claim that “she likes it” or "she should take it as a compliment” or “she shouldn’t be wearing that if she doesn’t want attention” has not likely been confirmed by anyone but you.
Men are men. And all of us look at women in a sexual way which may make the woman uncomfortable every day of our lives. I am not playing the heroic innocent. But one of our responsibilities is to keep it to ourselves until we engage with women we know what to engage. And it’s still complicated. But there is a line and we shouldn’t play dumb.
There are exceptions to all things in life. There are even people who like the shared experience of what would seem to the outside to be sexual assault. Etc, etc, etc. My point is, don’t hide behind the exception to the rule. The 5% who falsely report. The women you see in porn doing things that seem so intimate that you think you know what they would really want if you met them. As the outsider, you are not the best judge. Acting on that sense can - and in many cases should - lead to accusations.
There are two new films at Sundance (of what I have see so far) that cover this area. Cat Person includes the sexual submission of a young woman on a date… she doesn’t want to be there - we hear her think - but she never stops engaging the young man. It’s a quirky, intentionally funny bit about how bad choices go for young women, at least at that point of the film. Even so, as an audience member, I was hoping she would assert herself and stop. But the truth is, a lot of young women - probably older women too - don’t stop when they want to and don’t speak honestly about how they feel.
There is a quote at the start of the film from Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” This turns out to be the central theme of the film. And it would do men well to think more about this.
The other film is Fair Play, which Netflix bought, which walks a very balanced line between a man and a woman in a relationship that is challenged to the extreme. The couple is surrounded by men who show their abusive tendencies as badges of honor and gets to a point where the film suddenly takes a side in the relationship balance, seeming to ask the viewer to root for an assault. (To explain in any more detail would be a spoiler.)
The film is challenging - if you are seriously paying attention - because it speaks to all kinds of levels of engagement… and how the line of engagement between people can shift in an instant. Reactions when it lands will be very interesting.
I don’t really expect all of this ugliness to ever go away… at least until we reach a higher spiritual level as a species.
But it was so sad to watch Victim/Suspect and realize that 21 years after Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, not much has changed… even at the police precinct step, where people are supposed to go to be safer. As the movie argues - as I would - not only are many police precincts not a safe space for a rape victim, but the message of charging someone who may well be a victim, based on being able to manipulate their testimony and not by doing real investigatory police work to clear the case, is meant to send the message to women that reporting is unsafe… or almost worse, a waste of a victim’s time.
Are there false reports? Yes. Most would say around 5%. 1 in 20. That is not a basis for starting with the idea that a report is as likely as not to be false. And that seems to be what a high percentage of police departments are doing… clearing cases by stopping them before they become real cases.
I don’t have a happy ending for you. I wish I didn’t believe that I will see another new movie on this subject at Sundance in 2030.
Humans are social beings. And there are so many flavors of so many issues that we all have to process every day.
Do unto others as you would have them do to you.
Go and do likewise, gents… go and do likewise.